AFTER GRADUATING WITH A bachelor’s degree in accounting, Kansas resident Alex Larson knew he wanted to sit for the Certified Public Accountant exam. As is the case in many other states, Kansas requires test-takers to have completed at least 150 credit hours, and with just an undergraduate degree, Larson was 30 hours short.
He decided to take his education to the next level, enrolling in an online master’s degree program in accounting at Emporia State University.
“By the time I hit the 150, I would be about nine hours short of a master’s degree, and so I figured I might as well do it,” says the 26-year-old public accountant, who received his master’s in May 2018. He adds that he chose online education because he also worked full time right after college. The virtual format provided more flexibility to complete coursework around his schedule.
Larson isn’t alone, as accounting has joined a growing list of disciplines that students can study online.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for accountants and auditors – both of which prepare and analyze financial records – is expected to rise by 10 percent between 2016 and 2026. The median annual salary for accountants and auditors was $70,500 in 2018.
For working adults searching for the right online program, there are a lot of options. While the programs offered at different schools vary in structure and curriculum, here’s a general idea of what you can expect in an online accounting degree program at the master’s level.
Curriculum and Requirements. At Purdue University Global, where the online accounting master’s program requires 52 credit hours, students take courses across topics including financial accounting and reporting, regulation, auditing, business communications and corporate tax decisions and strategies, culminating in a graduate capstone course.
In some online programs, students may have an opportunity to choose a specific concentration area tailored to their career goals, which requires them to take classes in a specific area. At Purdue, concentrations include audit, finance, government and tax.
At the University of Miami, the online master’s program in accounting begins with “basic financial, managerial accounting,” says Seth Levine, faculty director for the Master of Professional Accounting program at the school. “Then we go into intermediate accounting. Then we sprinkle in a tax class, and an audit class, and a financial statement analysis class and an advanced accounting class.”
“So by the time they’re done,” Levine says, “they are very well equipped to start a review course to jump in, because really most of the students are in these programs to get those initials – to get the CPA after their name at the tail end.”
The University of Miami’s program partners with the Becker CPA Exam Review course, Levine says, allowing students to enroll in classes – either in person or online – upon finishing the master’s curriculum.
Your Classmates. At Southern New Hampshire University, the online degree program is popular among a variety of students with varying motivations, says Mona Stephens, accounting faculty lead at the school. Some students have an undergraduate degree in another field and are looking for a career change, whereas others have more experience in accounting.
“We also see people who have an undergraduate degree in accounting but for whatever reason want to get that’s master’s degree – maybe they’ve been working for a while,” Stephens says. “And we do get quite a few people who are coming in and looking to take the CPA exam. We really get a nice mix.”
Though most if not all of the coursework in an online master’s program is completed remotely, group projects may be common. In an online financial statement analysis course at the University of Miami, for instance, students work in small groups to analyze publicly traded companies and make buying and selling recommendations for the rest of the class. In a taxation class, team members collaborate on a tax return, Levine says.
Even in an online graduate program, prospective students should expect to interact with their classmates to some extent for assignments and other types of projects or by interacting on class discussion boards, where students respond to an assigned prompt and then to each other. In the University of Miami’s online program, these usually focus on ethical dilemmas and situations in accounting, Levine says.
Types of Assignments. The types of assignments students should expect in an online master’s degree program in accounting vary depending on the course. Larson, the Emporia State graduate, says research papers, discussion boards and traditional homework were particularly common for him.
“Accounting has areas where we’re doing financial accounting – we’re doing number-crunching, if you will,” says Paul Franklin, academic department chair for accounting programs at the Purdue University Global School of Business and Information Technology. “In those particular courses, we’re probably going to have some type of exam, and there’s going to be assignments where they’re actually working accounting problems.”
Team of business people working together on a laptop
Meanwhile, the law class that students take generally involves more writing, he says. In an auditing class, “You may have a final exam where you’ve been given an audit problem, and you’ve been given test results of the audit test,” says Franklin. “Now you need to weigh those findings and write some type of analysis and file a determination as to whether the audit was successful or not.”
Course Structure. How exactly classes are structured will vary depending on the program a student chooses. While some online accounting degree programs have courses that include a synchronous, or live, component – where students attend sessions with a professor through videoconferencing – others are completely asynchronous, or self-paced with weekly deadlines for assignments.
Which option is right for a prospective student boils down to whether the student desires some face-to-face interaction versus a completely virtual, self-paced environment, experts say. Prospective students should also note that their online program calendar may not adhere to a traditional semester academic calendar.
In online graduate degree programs at SNHU, where accounting classes are totally asynchronous, “We have five terms per year,” says Stephens. “So we have course dates for every term. You don’t have to wait until September. You can jump in at any particular term.”
Some online accounting master’s degree programs will also have an in-person orientation or other face-to-face component on campus or elsewhere, and students may choose to complete an internship. These will also vary.
Regardless, don’t expect that a program will be easier than an on-campus offering just because it’s online.
“You’ll find that in our classes, because most of our instructors are working professionals, they all have a passion for accounting and they’re all really, really happy to share that passion with their students,” Stephens says. “It’s really nice for us when people come in and they’re excited about the topic, and we get to share our stories, and we get to hear their stories, too.”